Gator News

GatorCast Ep. 19: Why We're Here - Impact of Community Colleges on the Future (Part 1)

By College Relations and the Office of the President, September 23, 2020

Episode Resources


Episode Transcript: 

President Johnson: Welcome to "GatorCast" the official podcast of Green River College, where we share conversations with the community about topics that are relevant to you. I'm Suzanne Johnson, president of the college. My guest today is Matthew Reed, vice president for learning at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. You also might know him as the blogger who writes the column "Confessions of a Community College Dean" for Inside Higher Education. Our conversation was pre-recorded prior to the COVID-19 epidemic, and we had an opportunity to talk about the importance of community colleges, and why we're so important to the future of our nation. Learning is why we're here. Learning is why we exist as Matt Reed will explore, and explain to us in part one of this podcast, enjoy.

President Johnson: Welcome to the podcast, Matt!

Matt Reed: Thank you, Suzanne. And thank you for calling it a column I like that. That sounds better than blog.

President Johnson: Really? What's the distinction between a blog and a column?

Matt Reed: I don't know, it just sounds better. I think as a kid, I kind of wanted to be a newspaper columnist when I grew up. And so thinking of it as a column kind of makes me feel like I've fulfilled a childhood ambition.

President Johnson: Well, that's great. We might be showing our age a bit talking about things as columns.

Matt Reed: Yeah, yeah, remember those people.

President Johnson: I'm eager to talk about the column that you write. What I like to do with all the guests and this season of "GatorCast" we're really focusing on notable individuals within the community college system of which you are one, to talk about all sorts of topics relevant to Green River College and our service area, but also these are topics that are relevant to the community college system across the country. There are roughly about 1,100 community colleges in our United States, and we serve a vital role in higher education, and opportunities for so many in our communities. Nearly half of all people who go on to college, attend community colleges. And sometimes that's a fact that not everybody is aware of. And so I'm really eager to have you here for a couple of reasons, which we'll get to through our conversation today, but what we like to do with all of our guests is give a little background about who the person is that's being interviewed, and what brought you to what you're doing right now. So who are you? Where do you come from? Tell us a little bit about your life.

Matt Reed: Who are you? That's a great opening question. I grew up outside of Rochester, New York, which was the home of Kodak back when that was a thing back in the '70s and '80s. And my goal after several other goals, eventually I wanted to be a PolySci professor at some small liberal arts college. I thought that sounded pretty good.

President Johnson: Wow.

Matt Reed: So that was the idea, that or lawyer. And went to undergrad at Williams College in Massachusetts, which is a very small liberal arts college. Spent one summer at an internship following lawyers around, and discovered I did not want to be a lawyer. So that was good information. So that sent me off to grad school.

President Johnson: Good learning opportunity.

Matt Reed: It was, it really was, nothing against lawyers generally, but it was not for me. Went to grad school at Rutgers here in Jersey that was strong PolySci political theory program in particular. Spent years and years studying the great works of Western thought. Graduated and nobody was hiring, which was kind of a shock except for a local branch of DeVry, which is a for-profit college, mostly tech focused. So because I had to eat, I started working there. I started as an adjunct. I quickly moved to full-time faculty, and I taught as full-time faculty for several years. They had a very small general education department because it was mostly a tech school. So I taught PolySci, and law, and history, and debate, and English.

President Johnson: Wow.

Matt Reed: I was a utility infielder, which actually was a great sort of bootcamp experience as with other bootcamps. It's not something you necessarily want to do twice, or for any length of time, but you do gain a lot as a teacher. This was the late '90s during the first big tech boom, and DeVry was expanding quickly they were adding campuses. Around 2000-ish they opened a campus outside of Philly, and about half of the administration of the New Jersey campus went to Philly to fill those roles. And I looked around at my colleagues to see who was gonna step up and thought they're lovely people, but, no, they're not managers. So mostly out of self-defense I went for it. And I became the associate dean of general education for awhile and then the dean of gen ed. So within a few years out of grad school I was already deaning, albeit in a very peculiar setting. The tech boom peaked around 2000-ish, and then crashed pretty hard. So I got there just in time to managed decline.

President Johnson: Oh, boy.

Matt Reed: Yeah, that was bad timing. And sort of the higher I got in the organization the closer I got to seeing how decisions were made, the more disillusioned I became with the whole mission of for-profit higher ed. I just saw too many decisions being made based on the profit part and not the ed part. And it really bothered me. So I started looking for other options. As luck would have it, a nearby community college, the County College of Morris in Morris County, New Jersey posted a deanship in liberal arts, which I thought sounded pretty good so I went for it. Got that in 2003, and I've been in the community college world ever since. Was at Morris for five years. Went up to Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts for seven as the academic vice president. And then in 2015 came back to Jersey. I should have mentioned while I was at Rutgers I met and married a Jersey girl, so.

President Johnson: Well, your wife will be happy to hear the shout out for that.

Matt Reed: Yeah, so her family is still here. Her parents are still here. So we came back here in 2015, and I've been at Brookdale ever since. So administration was initially a little bit accidental. It wasn't my career goal in going to grad school. I have a PhD, not an MD. I thought I was gonna be Professor Reed at some liberal arts college somewhere, but the universe had other plans. And in a way I think that that affects kind of how I do my jobs. I came at it from the academic side, and came up through the academic side I've taught. And really, wherever I've been, whether it was DeVry, or any of the community colleges, I've had a really unapologetic focus on good teaching. I want the students wherever I am to get the best classroom experience they can get. And ideally I'd like a visitor from Mars who lands in one of these classrooms to not really be able to tell from the conversation, whether it's a community college, or someplace more elite, because I think our students deserve that.

President Johnson: Absolutely.

Matt Reed: That's kind of the orientation that I bring to it. Yeah, let's go with that, oh, and the Dean Dad piece, since you're asked me. The blog started off under a pseudonym. I used to write it under the pseudonym Dean Dad. I started it in 2004 after I'd been at Morris for a year, and I had this severe culture shock because I'd gone from a for-profit publicly traded company to a tenured and unionized public community college. And although the title was the same, I went from dean to dean, the daily reality was unrecognizably different.

President Johnson: Let's talk a little bit about that.

Matt Reed: Okay.

President Johnson: Tell me what these differences were in terms of being in that for-profit higher ed domain, and then moving to a public unionized community college domain. That's very much what Green River College is, as I believe Brookdale is as well, right? We're in the realm of public education as a community college. Let's talk a little bit about what you observed in terms of the differences in a student's experience, and then also as a person who worked at those institutions.

Matt Reed: Okay. I have to preface this by saying the years that I was at DeVry were from '97 to 2003. And I mention that because since then, a lot of it has moved to online, but while I was there online was not really a thing. It was a very classroom-based experience. So what I refer to refers to that period. Someone walking in there now may have very different experience. We taught 45 credits a year as faculty, 15 credits per trimester, three trimesters per year, each one was four months long. So it was 12 months a year of teaching 15 credits at a time. There were no summers off. There was no tenure. There was no union. Pay raises were based on individual performance reviews, which were given point scores, and your point score determined your raise. When I got there, and, again, this was a particular time, and place it was rapidly expanding. They had just gotten licensed from the state to offer associate degrees for the first time. Prior to that they only offered certificates. They had it in their plans to go for offering bachelor's degrees. In the state of New Jersey at the time to do that, you needed a certain number of PhDs on your faculty, a certain percentage. So in the late '90s they kind of went on a hiring spree, and given the academic job market of the late '90s, they kind of had their pick of people. So a whole bunch of us got hired very quickly. And looking back, I would say in some ways for the first few years we were sort of without meaningful adult supervision.

President Johnson: Okay.

Matt Reed: It was growing quickly and the people who ran the place were so focused on growing it even faster, that they really didn't pay much attention to the academic side. So you had a whole bunch of like 32 year olds who kind of had free rein to do more or less what they wanted in the classroom. So we did some stuff that in retrospect I'm kind of shocked we got away with. I used to team teach a course on the history of ideas with my colleague, Peter Connolly-Smith, who had his PhD in American Studies from Yale. I would do the political philosophy part. He would do the popular culture part. This was at a school that people went to study local area networking. And we made it work, I mean, in retrospect, I'm sort of amazed we got away with that as long as we did, but we did.

President Johnson: Well, it sounds like a tremendously rich learning opportunity for the students that were attending.

Matt Reed: In some ways it was. Many of them came in specifically to avoid taking gen ed classes. So then when they discovered they had to anyway, they were a little cranky about it, and that led to some teaching challenges, but some of them acquired a taste for it to their surprise. And so I had that wonderful experience that I know you've had where you see a student discover, wait a minute, I didn't know I liked this. Nothing beats that for me.

President Johnson: Oh yeah, and in fact so much, and I know this is true for Brookdale as it is for Green River, we offer a variety of career and technical education classes and programs that's because a certain percentage of our students do come here with an already sort of decided area of interest, or love. And that's why they come here because we have a particular program that they're interested in. And sometimes it happens that despite their best plans, they are taking other classes in the context of educational requirements to sample courses and other areas. And they discover a whole untapped area of interest, and they change their entire life plan. Likewise, we have students that come, and I know Brookdale probably has the largest percentage of these students, correct me if I'm wrong. These are students that are coming to community college to transfer on after their associates to a four year public, or private college university. And interestingly enough, I see the same kind of discovery that happens in the other direction, which is they've come for the general education liberal arts courses that we'll transfer on. And they end up taking a class in a particular career technical area and they realize they love it. And that's the end of what their original plan was, too, and they thrive and go right into a career path that they hadn't contemplated. I think that's one of the most beautiful things about education and personal growth and discovery. And one of the main reasons that it's so important for students to have the opportunity to go to a college like Brookdale, or Green River College, for sure.

Matt Reed: Yeah, in the course of learning the various subjects they also learn about themselves. And it's just wonderful when you see the light bulb go on over their head, that never gets old for me. And you're right, we do have a lot who come in specifically to transfer and a lot of them do, but you do sometimes get the ones who surprise themselves. A few years ago our student trustee, we have one student on the board of trustees every year, came here as an automotive tech major, took a PolySci class as an elective, fell in love with it and left as a PolySci major, which is not in terms of guided pathways, that's kind of a nightmare, but I thought it was sort of cool.

President Johnson: Well, you bring up guided pathways, and we're gonna hop back to excellence in teaching, and that unwavering objective that you've carried no matter whether you were at a for-profit, or community college, Washington is a guided pathway state, and all community and technical colleges here in our state are in various stages of implementing guided pathways. And one of the things that, and for the listeners out there are not sure what guided pathways are about, essentially these are best practices to help students onboard into college, efficiently identify areas of interest, and stay on a path in a time efficient way to get them to their next destination. It's sort of very hands-on through every step of the way advising and guidance. And the question always comes up about guided pathways, which is, well, if a student comes in with one particular idea, and they change their mind, how does that impact them? And the importance of developing effective guided pathways is the ability to jump paths, right? To change roads because students discover things that they thought they loved. They realize, no, actually that's not what's gonna be, or they're trying to find what their path might be, and they start on one path, and they realize there's a better one for them. And so there's that flexibility that needs to be brought in to this work as we structure our world for our students, to help them and guide them effectively through their process of discovery, and identifying what makes the most sense to them educationally and career orientedly for now, and for the foreseeable future, but yeah, automotive to political science.

Matt Reed: Yeah, yeah, and he was utterly sincere about it. So I say more power to him.

President Johnson: That's wonderful. So let's go back to one thing that really struck me from what you've shared so far today, your dedication and devotion and unwavering commitment to excellence and teaching, and the expectation that if someone were to come from the planet Mars, and they would be in a classroom at Brookdale, or Green River College 'cause certainly that is absolutely my priority, too. We share a similar background in the context of going through liberal arts education, having PhDs in liberal arts, and being in faculty for a certain number of years before we moved into admin roles. The imperative of being able to deliver as a community college the same quality or better as it might be based on class size, and student-teacher ratio educational quality. Can we talk a little bit about that, and how you as vice president for learning at Brookdale, how you go about ensuring that that's happening, and talk a little bit about what community colleges do provide in terms of high quality education.

Matt Reed: Sure. I guess I'll start with something I noticed early on at Morris 2004, 2005. As part of the role of dean I had to do class observations. So I would watch faculty teach. And I discovered quickly most of them did a better job than the graduate faculty I'd had at Rutgers. And reflecting on it I realized when I got to Rutgers as a graduate student, I was there a couple of years before I TA'd my first class. The class I TA'd first time, it was a 300 student sort of auditorium lecture, intro to politics, and there were four TAs, and we each had a few recitation sections of 20 something, or 30 students a pop.

President Johnson: And TA stands for teaching assistant in case some of our listeners don't know our higher ed lingo.

Matt Reed: Sorry.

President Johnson: Yeah, no worries.

Matt Reed: And the week before the first class meeting the professor whose course it was, whose gonna be the sage on the stage, took us out to lunch to kind of prep us for the semester. And at Rutgers that was already unusual. And I remember asking him, okay, I've never taught a class in my life. Next week I'm gonna be in front of 30 something students twice in a row. What do I do? And he kind of looked at me funny and said, "You'll be fine." That was the extent of my teacher training at Rutgers. So that semester all of these students who had paid tuition at a higher level than a community college who had fought to get into a selective state flagship research university, were getting most of their instruction from a 23-year-old TA who by his own admission had no idea what he was doing. Meanwhile, 10 miles up Route One at Middlesex County College students taking the same class had a full professor with tenure and a class of 25 who'd been hired because he was a good teacher. That kind of stuck with me.

President Johnson: Yes, yes.

Matt Reed: And when I got to Morris and then Holyoke, and I saw community college faculty teach, I saw the difference between folks who were teaching because it was what they had to do to subsidize their research versus people who taught because they love teaching. It's noticeable, and it's especially noticeable when you compare the size of the classes, the 300 student lecture versus the 25 student intro course. It's not just the community colleges are cheaper, although they are, but for the intro level classes you're getting a better education. I'm not sure that a lot of people know that. That's one of those messages that I would love to scream from the mountaintops. It may be different at the higher levels when you start to get the more specified stuff, but if you're talking the 101s, the Psych 101 class with 300 students in the auditorium, I would rather have a community college professor whose been doing it for 10 or 15 years in a room full of 25 people. You're gonna get a more robust educational experience that way.

President Johnson: Yeah, I know that there are excellent instructors, no matter what institution we're talking about, community college, four year, public, private, and so on. So for listeners out there, there are good invested instructors who are devoted to high quality teaching no matter what institution, but I will say that in the context of community college, one of the things I've learned across time myself is faculty who are at community colleges, they've had options. They've had options whether it's to go the full-time research route, maybe teach an occasional class, or to go the route of trying to balance teaching, and research together, or choosing a path that has dedication to teaching as the overwhelming focus of their work at a college campus. And one of the things I know for sure about faculty at Green River, and I suspect you say the same in terms of faculty that are at Brookdale, they've chosen to be at the community college because they're invested and dedicated to being the best classroom instructor, they love teaching. They love the classroom and that's what's led them, or driven them to choose to be faculty in higher education within the community college environment. And as you're pointing out it's notable. I liken it to any kind of social interaction when you're interacting with somebody, whether it's a classroom situation as a student, or you're having a conversation with another person, you can tell when someone's invested in what they're doing, and saying to you.

Matt Reed: Absolutely.

President Johnson: And you can tell when they're not.

Matt Reed: Right, absolutely.

President Johnson: Right.

Matt Reed: Even more the latter, yeah.

President Johnson: Yeah, so let's talk a little bit about your role then as the vice president for learning. It's an interesting title. I'm thinking it's similar to other positions that we might think of in higher education like a provost, or a VP for academic affairs. Tell me how this title came about at Brookdale, and what your priorities within this role are in terms of instruction at your school.

Matt Reed: The title was changed by our previous president, Maureen Murphy. It had been academic affairs, and in terms of its responsibilities, and how it looks on the org chart, it's vice president for academic affairs. I think the point of the change was to say academic affairs sounds like an institution. Learning is why we're here. So she put it in there, I think to kind of remind us all of why we're here.

President Johnson: It's all about student learning.

Matt Reed: Yeah, yeah. The role requires I think of it as setting the background conditions against which people can do their best work. So it's a funny combination of trying to inspire, trying to provide a little bit of traffic cop, occasionally lifeguard. It's a mix of duties, but the point of it is to kind of keep the academic train on the tracks. And that's a challenge because there's always a funding problem, and there's always some quirky personnel issue, and there's always some strange union thing. And there's always the state comes out with a new regulation that was written by someone who doesn't know what it means. So you're always kind of dealing with those things, but the point of it to me is to enable faculty to do their best work. And that's I will say every day brings a new opportunity for creative problem-solving.

President Johnson: So I made a little note here, enable faculty to do their best work. I get asked all the time when people say, oh, what do you do for a living? And I'll say, well, I'm the president at Green River College. And they'll say, what does a president do? And it's hard to say in a sentence what a president does because like you and your office as you're describing, there's all sorts of things that come to your office every day. Many things that you wouldn't necessarily expect that end up being within the scope of your job, but there they are. And I've decided the best way I describe what a president does is very similar to what you're describing in relation to the faculty, which is, well, I'm here to support the faculty and staff at the institution to create an environment that supports the greatest student opportunities, and learning that we can create. Now that's a sentence that seems pretty clear, but, of course, that's just the tip of the iceberg. It's usually a pretty good answer for people who ask me what does the president do? And then we go onto other topics, but I think when you're in a leadership role like you are, like I am, like many, many people that I'm interviewing in this season two of "GatorCast" that's the commonality of our roles. We might have different titles, but ultimately we're there to create, facilitate, support those who are directly impacting, and interacting with our students for the greatest success in their roles for our students outcomes.

Matt Reed: Absolutely.

President Johnson: Yeah, so what is the greatest challenges with that? You mentioned a few things earlier in terms of funding issues and so on, but what are the greatest challenges that you face in your role in terms of helping enable the faculty to do their best work?

Matt Reed: Well, the resource challenge I think is sort of obvious. So to sort of leave that one at that we are badly underfunded relative to other sectors of higher ed, and that has obvious implications.

President Johnson: So would you say that that's unique to New Jersey? I mean, when you're saying that, are you talking specifically at a state level, or nationally from your vantage point?

Matt Reed: I don't think that community colleges anywhere are particularly well-funded, but I do think in the Northeast and the Midwest we're particularly struggling with declining enrollment, which makes it a tough situation that much tougher. I would suggest, and we've talked about this offline, I think that some of the struggles that we're facing are symptomatic of a much larger cultural move. It's not something directly under the control of a community college, which is that in the last 50 years, or so, in the United States we've gone from what I would say is a predominantly middle class culture to a very polarized culture, and community colleges are awkwardly situated in that because we were built to create a middle class. That's kind of the point, and much of how they're organized, and how they exist was based on the assumption that there's a whole lot of people who want to get good middle class jobs, have good middle class lives, and it's our job to get them there. And in the last 50 years, and especially the last 20, jobs have moved either up or down. A lot of them either have ratcheted up their requirements, and their salaries, or they've been eliminated, and replaced by much lower paying sort of unskilled jobs. And that puts community colleges in a weird spot because outside of a few industries, the targets that we were built to hit are more elusive than they used to be. And that's putting a strain on us. In some states they have performance funding where they can condition college support on certain outcomes as determined by the legislature. We don't have that here, thankfully. And that always bothered me because it struck me that so much of what parents, and students in the community care about is outcomes are not entirely under the control of the college. In other words, we don't cause recessions. We don't cause economic booms. When Kodak collapsed in Rochester, where I grew up, it was not because Monroe Community College dropped the ball. So community colleges I think are being expected to compensate for changes that they did not create, and are being expected to do it on progressively thinner budgets, and that's really hard. Here in New Jersey we've lost one. We've gone from 19 to 18 in the last year, community colleges. It's tough, and I don't know, I don't say it to get sympathy that's not the point, but I don't know that a lot of people understand how precarious some of these places are, and what will be lost if they were lost.

President Johnson: Let's dive a little bit deeper into this. So at the timing of this recording, there was recently an opinion piece that was published in "The New York Times" entitled "Who Killed the Knapp Family?" And it's focusing on Yamhill, Oregon. Yamhill is a town situated nearby Salem, which is the capital of Oregon. And it talks about the decline of the economy of Yamhill. And you've mentioned Rochester, and some economic shifts that occurred in that being a major city of Upstate New York. Let's talk a little bit more about Rochester, and what you observed in terms of growing up what's happened in Rochester, and get a little bit more into the shifts that occur within our society, and expectations toward community colleges in terms of addressing those kinds of cultural shifts. So Rochester city, Upstate New York, there were two predominant industries, if I'm recalling correctly, Kodak being one, Xerox being the other. What happened with Kodak in Rochester?

Matt Reed: Xerox mostly relocated. They moved a lot of their stuff to either Connecticut or California. And Kodak, really, people don't know this, Kodak actually invented digital photography in the '70s.

President Johnson: I did not know that. I always remember them as the Instamatic cameras and things because that's how old I am listeners for all our students out there.

Matt Reed: Yeah, I'm right there with you. Yeah, I remember the phrase Kodak moment, you know?

President Johnson: Oh, yes.

Matt Reed: That referred to something you take a picture of. Kodak was the dominant photographic film manufacturer in America in the 20th century. And in the late 20th century when I was growing up up there, it employed 65,000 people in Monroe County, New York, or where Rochester is. Most of my friend's dads worked at Kodak, and many of them did not have college degrees, but at the time they didn't need them. They made good livings, they lived in decent houses. Some of them had boats, boats were big there.

President Johnson: Oh, yes, fishing and hunting.

Matt Reed: Yeah, a lot of boats. You could support a family at a middle class level with a high school diploma working at Kodak for a long time, but Kodak was afraid that digital photography would cannibalize its film business. So after it invented digital photography, it sat on it for decades.

President Johnson: Oh, wow.

Matt Reed: Well, the guy who invented it wrote a book about it. It's actually a whole thing. Over time, first digital cameras came along and then phones, smartphones with cameras. I can't remember the last time I bought film. I'm thinking 2001, 2002-ish, maybe. And that's true of a lot of people. Nobody buys film anymore. So Kodak had actually declared bankruptcy a few years ago. It still exists, but it's much, much, much smaller. It's less than a 10th of the size it used to be. And so the city that had a fairly large, and solid sort of middle class lost its major employer. And a lot of those folks, the sort of scientific technical folks were often able to either find other jobs, or create their own, but a lot of the folks who were more on the unskilled side were never able to find jobs that paid the same. And so the city has really suffered. Now, I'll admit I don't currently live there, and folks who do currently live there are more than welcome to rebut what I'm saying, but it is not economically the city it was. To me that's a very real danger. When I see the stats on income polarization, or even I just go looking for houses, they're either crazy expensive, or kind of scary. There's not much in the middle. The middle has kind of evaporated. That to me is of concern. Again, I see community colleges as sort of monuments to the middle class. That's why they exist, that's why they were built. It was the democratization of higher ed. And that worked for awhile. I think the stats something like half of the community colleges in America were founded in the 1960s.

President Johnson: Yeah, I didn't realize it was--

Matt Reed: Yeah, it's about 500 of them. So it was almost one a week for a decade, which is sort of amazing. That is no longer the case. And a lot of the ones now are really struggling. The folks who kind of moved up in the world sometimes kind of pull up the drawbridge behind them. The folks who got left behind sometimes don't know where to start. And the middle on which we've relied has shrunk. I think that's a much larger problem than any one college can solve. And I don't bring it up to be depressing, but I think it's useful context.

President Johnson: Sure, sure. One of the other guests in this season, and I'm not sure what the order of airing will be, but I know we have a mutual friend, Russell Lowery-Hart, who is president at Amarillo Community College in Texas. And one of the things that we spend some time talking about in the episodes together centers on the synergy, and the important connection and synergy between the community colleges service area, right? The communities that we serve, we are the community's college, and the important connections between what is happening at that community college, and the economic stability vitality, and potential economic growth, the service area can achieve and maintain. And I'm wondering about that reality and the importance of a connection between a community college and its service area economy, and some of the thoughts that you're sharing right now in terms of how economies can change within a service area for a community college, having little to nothing to do with the college, and what that means for us, and what we do as a community college to help in those situations. What are your thoughts on that?

Matt Reed: Yeah, it's a great question, and it's something we struggle with a lot. Monmouth County, which is where Brookdale is, has a funny economy. It's a very affluent place in terms of housing prices and that kind of thing, but the average, most of the jobs here are low-paying. And the disjuncture is because there's a lot of folks who live here, but work in New York City, or work right outside of New York City. Financial stuff, and that kind of thing. So just yesterday I was in a steering committee meeting for a Perkins Grant, and we got some of the job data on the area from our local demographers. Sorry. The two top job categories in Monmouth County are retail and leisure. And the two lowest paying job categories in Monmouth County are retail and leisure.

President Johnson: Gotcha.

Matt Reed: So we have some hospitals, we have some schools, we have the usual public sector staff, and we have a few companies, we have a few big employers, but mostly it's a lot of low-end retail. So as a community college that wants to produce folks who go out and do all those middle class jobs, either that means preparing them for upwards transfer, which we do anyway, and I'm happy to do it, or finding those little onesies and twosies, which we do, and, again, happy to do it, but it's hard to kind of bring that up to scale. So we've been talking a lot lately about bringing sort of entrepreneurship training into fields where it's not normally done.

President Johnson: Such as?

Matt Reed: Such as the arts. We have a fair number of students in the fine arts programs who want to be artists in various forms, whether it's painting, or graphic design, or sculpture, or whatever. They don't have anything in their curriculum that prepares them sort of how to make a living as an artist, how to peddle your wares, how to work the market. And that strikes me as a missed opportunity. People in the arts by definition are creative people. Entrepreneurship is a form of creation. I'm thinking if we can get some of that entrepreneurship exposure to the folks who are creating new stuff all the time anyway, some good stuff might happen. The textbook case of that would be Steve Jobs, but the one that was closer to my experience when I was at Holyoke Community, there was an alum named Michael Kittredge, who was an art major when he was at HCC, he was obsessed with candles, I don't know why, but he was.

President Johnson: All right, okay.

Matt Reed: He went on to found Yankee Candle. 

President Johnson: Oh, wow.

Matt Reed: Which you see in every mall.

President Johnson: I actually have Yankee candles in my home.

Matt Reed: There you go. Yeah, there's a huge Yankee Candle factory now in Deerfield, Massachusetts, providing good jobs making candles. If you looked at the job market projections for Western Mass in 1972, I don't think candle making would have been on the list.

President Johnson: Right.

Matt Reed: But he saw an opportunity and he took it. And he combined that sort of love of candles with an entrepreneurial bent and created something.

President Johnson: I think this is just such a great example of a couple of things, which I believe to be sort of characteristics, and also challenges for community colleges, whether Brookdale, New Jersey, Green River College in Auburn, Washington, right outside of Seattle area, community colleges are oftentimes described as being nimble or innovative. And I think the description of what you're talking about in relation to entrepreneurship in relation to arts might be an example of that. And that community colleges are needing to sort of have that magic eight ball, or the crystal ball in anticipating new, or future emerging markets to get the programs, and/or training course offerings in place in anticipation of something that's emerging. And that one, of course, is something that would be wonderful if we had high rates of accuracy, but like you're pointing out who would have predicted Yankee Candle.

Matt Reed: Right.

President Johnson: Right, and in that region of Connecticut. And so how does one do that? Especially in the context of us both being part of public institutions, we are appropriately so, stewards of taxpayer money. And so we have a very high standard of utilizing monies appropriately, efficiently, and value-based in terms of high return for the funding, and resources that we do receive. So I would say that that's an interesting set of issues for us to contend with as being challenges, currently, that face community colleges for sure, how to maintain our innovation, how to anticipate future needs to help continue to contribute to the middle class potential. And, of course, providing opportunities for students that transfer on that might get law degrees, medical degrees, PhDs, and any number of different things, MBAs and so on that bring them far beyond middle class earning. So how do you juggle those challenges of innovation, anticipation, putting Brookdale in a situation of being able to be a supporter of the economic engine of that community while keeping in mind, as you pointed out, right? The two top employment areas are retail and leisure in your area and the lowest paying jobs are in retail and leisure. I would suspect that our listeners, regardless of what state you're listening in, or region of the country, this sort of income polarization that you've described is occurring everywhere. It's certainly occurring in the service area of Green River College, without question, we have income polarization, and a shrinking of the middle class, and we are addressing the same kinds of challenges, I think Brookdale is. So what do you do in this context? Entrepreneurship with arts, that's one thing. What else are you talking about at Brookdale?

Matt Reed: Well, one of the things that we've taken on, and I got to tip my cap to Sara Goldrick-Rab at Temple University on this one. We've been very conscientious about attending to the basic needs of students who can't necessarily meet their basic needs. So what I mean by that we've partnered with a number of different community organizations, some faith-based, some not. We have a food pantry on campus. We've brought a bilingual social worker to campus a couple days a week. We have some social service agencies filling in the other days a week. We've made a big push for open educational resources to take the place of commercially produced textbooks. All of which is in the spirit of recognizing the reality that some of our students are really struggling economically. And for them to tell someone whose couch-surfing to pay $200 for a textbook is just not right. I can't necessarily fix the couch-surfing, but we can fix the textbook. So we're pushing in that direction. Last year, I was charged by the president with developing an academic master plan for the college for the next three years. And I'm a believer that any strategic plan, or any master plan should have one goal, and then everything should flow from the one goal. Not everyone believes that, but I do. And so the one goal was the reduction of achievement gaps. So in terms of recognizing the new economic reality, we have to recognize that not every student is middle class. They don't all have their own cars. They don't all only work 10 hours a week of work study. Many of them work 30 or 40 hours a week just to put food on the table. Some of them use financial aid to support their parents. That makes it difficult to do some of the things that you could do if everybody was fully funded.

President Johnson: This is such an important point. And for the listeners who are staff and faculty at Green River, and in our service area, many of you remember we had Sara Goldrick-Rab here as one of our keynote speakers for our opening day in September of this academic year. And we are beginning our next strategic plan for the institution, as well as working on an academic master plan is an element of that. And when you emphasize one goal, right? Reduction of equity gaps, or achievement gaps among groups of students, we have been having considerable dialogue, and conversation around us. And we, too, are bringing many supports to our students. Very much like you were describing in terms of food pantry, and assistance in terms of housing, and financial insecurities that go with the cost of going to college. Costs of going to college isn't just tuition. It is a lot of other things, gas, food, housing. Hard like you say, hard to convince a student that, or to even get your head around if you are a student spending $200 on a textbook, when you don't have a place to sleep tonight. it might be the backseat of your car, or maybe you can rely on a family friend, or a friend to let you sleep on their couch again.

Matt Reed: Exactly.

President Johnson: This becomes such an important element, I think from my vantage point in terms of what is our role as a community college moving forward for our service area, and for the vitality of our country. When we talk about income polarization, and the shrinking of the middle class, it would seem to me that one of the things we must do as a community college is to ensure the sustainability of the middle class in every way we can, and certainly give opportunities for those who exceed that, but where would we be without a middle class?

Matt Reed: Absolutely. And that's a difficult note to hit in some ways because there are people who will draw conclusions about your politics from a statement like that. And they might think of themselves as let's say conservative, and they might not want to get behind a mission that sounds suspiciously liberal. And so I think that there's a real challenge for those of us who do believe in fairness and equity, and in making that real institutionally to speak languages that can cross that divide. And I think as the divide gets more entrenched, that gets harder to do, but I do think there's a lot of commonality culturally that we can tap into.

President Johnson: Agreed, in fact, it's interesting that you make that observation about some of my comments, because in some ways I find community colleges to be one of the, I was gonna say the epitome of the example of an American dream, but it is a vital, critical element to the American dream, which is equal opportunity for all. And in other words, public access. If you desire to have education beyond high school, here's your opportunity. It is not only affordable, but it will take you to your next destination. I think when we start talking about so that makes, I think, a lot of sense, regardless of a person's politic, or political orientation, in the context of everybody gets a fair chance, right?

President Johnson: Hi listeners. This concludes part one of my conversation with Matthew Reed. The following episode will feature part two, where we further explore the importance of community colleges, and how essential they are to our nation now, and in the future. That's next time on "GatorCast." Have a great day.

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